In 1962 a low budget horror film by writer John Clifford and director
Herk Harvey from Lawrence, Kansas made its debut with little fan fare.
Suffering from poor distribution it languished and nearly died. Years
later it began to get air time on cable television and was re
discovered by a whole new generation of fans, even playing in art house
theatres in the late 80’s. Eventually the film rights were sold and the
movie was remade as Wes Craven Presents Carnival of Souls. The movie
reached an even wider audience when it was released on DVD from the
Criterion Collection. Carnival of Souls is widely regarded as one of
the best examples of its genre.
For over forty years now John Clifford has been inexorably linked with
Carnival of Souls but today we’ll shed a little more light on Mr. Clifford’s long and diverse
writing career that spans from the golden days of radio through Carnival of
Souls and way beyond.
* * *
Pratt: How did your writing career begin? Where did you start?
John Clifford: Well, I was a teenager living in Chicago in the Great
Depression years, and it was hard to find work. My cousins were mostly
getting labor jobs, if they found work at all. One day-I was seventeen
or so-I was reading a book by Robert Benchley, a humor book. At the
time, I thought I was kind of funny myself (laughs). As I set the book
down, it occurred to me that Benchley got paid for writing, and in a
sudden Eureka moment I saw that fact as a possibility for me. If I
could teach myself to write, I wouldn’t have to settle for loading
freight trains or doing factory work. I could work in the world of
ideas-which, I realized, was what I truly wanted. I knew it would be an
uphill climb for a high school dropout, but I was optimistic. I began
by creating jokes. I taught myself gag-writing. That was in the prime
days of radio, you know. So I started submitting my jokes to famous
comedians who made personal appearances in Chicago theatres. The very
first person who ever interviewed me for a job was Bob Hope. The second
person was Milton Berle. Neither one hired me, I was too green. But
around that time, I began selling gags by mail to Ken Murray, another
popular radio comic. I knew nobody else doing those things, but I
continued my long habit of educating myself at the public library, and
began teaching myself radio and screenplay writing.
In 1940 I got a draft number. I didn’t know when I’d be called up, but
I thought before I get drafted I’m going to give Hollywood a look. I
had about 200 dollars, so I packed my scripts and went to Hollywood.
There, I was signed up by an agent who thought he could get me started
as a junior writer in one of the film studios. But what came up for me,
instead, was my draft number. I went into the army for a year. Eight
months later Pearl Harbor happened, so I ended up serving about five
Pratt: What did you do in the army?
John Clifford: They first assigned me to the Signal Corps, actually to
the army film unit at Fort Monmouth, N.J. Back then, my experience was
no match for that of other draftees from Hollywood, so they dropped me
out of the film unit. I became part of the cadre that opened a second
Signal Corps training center at Camp Crowder, Mo. A break for me,
because that’s where I met my future wife, Carol-at a USO dance in
Joplin. Later, I was re assigned again and went overseas in the medics.
I served in New Guinea and the Philippines.
My wife’s family moved to Emporia, Ks, so after the war that was the
city I came home to. We returned to Hollywood for a couple of years.
Carol took a job as a legal secretary at Paramount Pictures. I took the
GED test, got my high school diploma and, for a year, I attended Maren
Elwood’s Hollywood School for Writers on the G.I. Bill. Carol was smart
and was offered several opportunities at Paramount, but we both decided
the Midwest suited us better. We returned to Kansas and I went to
college at Emporia State.
During that time I was in Hollywood I think all I sold was a short story and a radio script.
Pratt: Do you remember what show you sold your script to?
John Clifford: The Skippy Hollywood Theatre. My little play was called
Angels With Amnesia. I remember it well because years later, in the
1980’s, I rewrote it as the libretto for a one-hour opera aimed for
children, called, Malooley and the Fear Monster. The opera’s composer
was Dr. John Pozdro of Lawrence and K>U> It has been produced
several times Anyway, after college we moved here to Lawrence with our
new baby and I taught journalism at Lawrence High for three semesters.
Worked on the Topeka Daily Capital awhile, then taught myself
advertising copy writing and joined an ad agency there. Then, finally,
I got the opportunity to return to Lawrence and write films at Centron
Productions. Interesting group of coworkers-it was like the ideal job
for me: earn my living writing in the daytime, create my own things at
Pratt: How many films did you write for Centron?
John Clifford: Oh, somewhere between 150 and 200 short films, probably. Never counted exactly.
Pratt: How were you assigned your work at Centron?
John Clifford: Well, we-Centron’s other long-term writer was Trudy
Travis-we sort of worked within two combined divisions. One was Centron
Educational Films (CEF), which made and sold educational films for the
classroom. The other produced informational and training films for
industry, associations, and governments-you name it. Centron film crews
traveled all over the world. As a professional writer I didn’t look
upon the work as personal creativity; I thought of it as problem
solving. I was working in the world of ideas. It left me enough energy
that, on my own time, I could paint, sculpt, write plays, song lyrics,
whatever else I wanted to outflow.
Pratt: Do you have a favorite film that you wrote for Centron?
John Clifford: Not really, not one favorite. I tend to remember the
ones where the writing assignment seemed impossible, then I’d find a
way to make it work, sometimes write a prizewinner. Centron as a whole
won an amazing number of film festival awards. I’ll give you an example
of one project that pleased me: Dr. Karl Menninger of Topeka initiated
a project to house abandoned children who would otherwise be put in
institutions. It was called The Villages. They were groups of
custom-built homes, each large enough to hold twelve or more kids.
Married couples lived in each house and provided the kids a
family-style home where they could stay till they were 21. Anyway, I
wrote a couple of films about it. Once, a Philadelphia group became
interested in such a project, but neither Dr. Karl nor anyone else was
available to go to their meeting. So they were sent one of my films.
Two weeks later a spokesman for The Villages called to tell me the
group had sent him a check for one million dollars. I felt good about
that! Not many films earn a million dollars in a single showing to one
Pratt: You once wrote a western novel called The Shooting of Storey James. What can you tell me about that?
John Clifford: As a kid about the only movies I went to were westerns.
In the late 1950’s, I read a lot of the archival stuff at the Kansas
Historical Society, and wrote several articles for the Topeka Daily
Capital, where I worked as a copy editor. One day I thought of a
slightly different slant on the traditional shoot-em-up western, and
decided to satisfy my boyhood wish and write one. I have trouble
sticking to rigid formats, but this time I tried to. So I was surprised
when the agent I acquired said that the "unusual format" would make it
a hard sell. He was right. Every publisher of westerns rejected it.
Doubleday said it was "too episodic." A year or so later, while working
at Centron, I looked at the manuscript again. I had told the story from
two viewpoints, giving each man an alternate chapter. I didn’t rewrite
it. The only alteration I made was to change viewpoints in mid-chapter
instead of at the chapter’s end. Then I thought, editors skim through
so many manuscripts, they won’t remember what they said about mine a
year ago. So I sent it back to Doubleday with a note saying, "I have
made all the changes you suggested." They bought it immediately. And in
its genre it was quite successful. It was the number one hard-cover
western for a while, went into paperback and several foreign reprints.
I also got paid for a movie option. It was never made, but another
writer used the same gimmick later in a made-for-TV western starring
Pratt: You’ve written such a variety of material. Do you have a form of writing you enjoy most?
John Clifford: Well, I don’t know-writing song lyrics is probably the
easiest. Maybe that’s why so many people do it. It’s easy to dash off a
bad poem, but even a bad novel might take years of work.
I used to write lyrics for a talented young musician who, when I first
knew him, was a junior high music teacher, with lots of drive and
ambition. Today he is the well-known composer Angelo Badalamenti. Andy
has scored most of the David Lynch films and many others. Back in the
earlier days the songs he and I wrote together were recorded by artists
such as Nina Simone, Della Reese, and Joe Williams.
I’m a generalist, I guess. I think I’ve published something in every
field. That’s why I never got rich. Overall, my thing seems to be
Pratt: What was the experience of writing Carnival of Souls like?
John Clifford: Actually, relatively easy. I never sweated it. I’m sure
it was a lot more work for Herk Harvey, the director, and his five-man
crew. When I came to Centron, Herk was a director there. We found we
had mutual interests. He had tried his hand at writing a screenplay
about prairie wind wagons. He’d gotten the idea from a long article in
the Topeka paper; an article which, he then discovered, I had written.
So we hit it off. One day he told me about an abandoned outdoor dance
pavilion he’d seen in Utah, called Salt Air. He thought it would be an
eerie place to stage a dance macabre. He told me if I could come up
with a suitable script, he knew local businessmen who might come up
with the money to make a film. It was a chance to write a feature film,
so I grabbed it. Herk had vacation time coming up soon, there was no
time to lose, so I started working on it at home that night. I finished
it in my off-work time in about three weeks. I remember thinking we’d
have very little money, but the moody Salt Air Pavilion would provide
us with a cheap set. So I started thinking of ready-made settings in
Lawrence that might cost us little or nothing. One that came to mind
was the Reuter Organ Company. I’d seen the huge room where they
gathered and tested the whole, finished organ. That gave me the idea of
making the heroine an organist, and that’s how I would get her to Utah
and-that was it. The story took off from there, and I watched it unfold
on the screen in my mind. Well, it wasn’t quite that simple, but
Pratt: There was no gore in the film. Was that due to budget restraints?
John Clifford: No-gore can be as cheap as a bottle of Ketchup. I never considered it. I preferred the psychological, still do.
Actually, I’m not impressed by filmed gore. That, and making audiences
cry, are the easiest things a writer can do. Want both? Easy: We meet
an adorable little girl and her loving daddy. She’s delighted when he
agrees to play with her. He tosses her a rubber ball, it rolls into
street, she chases it and is smashed into the pavement by a truck. Any
amateur could milk that sort of thing for shock or a lump in the
Pratt: What else would you have put into the Carnival of Souls script if the budget had been larger?
John Clifford: I don’t know-I’ve never dwelt on it. We knew we’d have a
tight budget right from the beginning. Herk Harvey asked me not to have
too many conversational scenes on the street and so forth. People may
not notice because of the organ music, but I wrote about half the film
as a silent movie. I wrote too much that way. That’s why Herk had to
add that obvious sound-dubbing at the beginning of the picture.
Pratt: Is there any question about Carnival of Souls that you’re surprised hasn’t been asked?
John Clifford: I can’t think of any. A lot of false information has
accumulated. On-line, I found there’s a lot written about it. I looked
at two or three sites and found mistakes. Like, one said the film was
shot in 16mm and blown up to 35mm, but it wasn’t. It was filmed in
Pratt: When you read something negative about the film does it bother you?
John Clifford: Not this late in the game. Many people don’t see what
all the fuss was about, and I understand that. Later, with more
experience, we see bits in it we’d all like to change. Remember, this
is an old film, from another era. It had hardly any reviews when it
came out in 1962. Then it was re discovered and played in theatres all
over the country 27 years later. At that time, one New York newspaper
called it "nothing less than the best genre film of 1989." I remember
one reporter asked Herk, "Do you realize how many thousands of old
black and white films are lying in the vaults forgotten?" In actual
cash, Herk Harvey made a film for 17,000 dollars. Can’t expect
everybody to like the result. In its own way, Herk’s work was an
Pratt: Did the finished product match the movie you envisioned in your head?
John Clifford: I’ve never seen a film or play come out exactly as I
imagined it. It’s impossible. Directors, crews, actors all interpret
and add their own nuances. I’ve learned that most of the time it’s a
fifty-fifty proposition-one scene misses what I’d hoped for, then
another shines beyond my expectations.
Pratt: The lead character, Mary Henry, was so isolated. Did you do that on purpose?
John Clifford: Absolutely. She stubbornly resisted her fate and hovers
lost between life and death. I avoided the usual thing back then of
having some guy come along and help her and ease the tension. There’s
no love interest, nobody can help her, and nobody can reach her. She
sort of personifies that private, secret fear-place we all keep
isolated within us..I think that’s why the film appeals to kids and
young teenagers. They live that way inside while trying to pretend
they’re competent and know more than they do. One reviewer said that if
you lob off the beginning and the end, it’s the best film ever made
about schizophrenia. Maybe he has a point; maybe that is what it’s
Pratt: Does it irritate you to be so strongly tied to Carnival of Souls when you’ve done so many things?
John Clifford: I think that’s kind of a joke. On me. I’ve worked so much harder on many other projects.
Pratt: Is there any form of writing you haven’t tried that you would like to?
John Clifford: In retirement I’m kind of following the classical Greek
advice. They said the first third of life should be spent growing up
and getting an education-the middle third should be given to career,
family, and service-and the last third should be devoted to philosophy.
I’m into the search, into the perennial philosophy, trying to know what
I’m really all about. I know a hell of a lot more than I did, but life
is still a mystery to me. If I ever figure it out, maybe I’ll write
Pratt: Do you have any favorite writing influences?
John Clifford: No, I don’t. (Laughs) Couldn’t single out one. As I said
earlier, I was educated in the public library. I have a zillion
Pratt: What do you think of Wes Craven’s Carnival of Souls?
John Clifford: It was awful. He’s probably sorry he lent his name to it.
Pratt: Any advice for young writers/film makers?
John Clifford: Skill wise, really study and practice the dramatic
principles that enable you to hold reader/viewer interest. Amateurs
assume a willing audience, pros assume the opposite. Creatively, don’t
limit yourself to imitating things that others have done repeatedly. My
guess is, the young ones most likely to make it are the ones who
struggle to manifest their own heart’s truth. The deeper you go inside
yourself, the more others you will reach.
* * *
Mr. Clifford lives in Lawrence, Kansas. He and Carol are divorced, but
they remain friends. Their daughter, Christine, is a software engineer
and their son, John S., is an attorney.